Stuff and Nonsense: July 2012


7.31.2012

Top 10 Tuesday: Switching Places


I'm jumping on the Top Ten Tuesday bandwagon to answer this week's question “What top ten characters would you switch places with for 24 hours?” Rightnowthisminute (because I can’t promise forever when the world is full of so many books I haven’t yet read and heroines I haven't encountered), these are my ten:
  1. Beauty from Robin McKinley’s Beauty, her first retelling of “Beauty and the Beast”
  2. Deanna Wolfe from Prodigal Summer (live in the woods, study wildlife, and have great sex? Yes, please!)
  3. Emma from the fantastic maid manga Emma
  4. Harry Crewe from The Blue Sword (The sword, the horse, the king!)
  5. Jane from Greenwitch (or Silver on the Tree, but then I would totally rewrite it so no-one forgets what happens and she/I get it on with Bran)
  6. Jill (aka Brangwen, Lyssa, Gweniver, Branoic, Morwen, Branna) from Katherine Kerr’s Deverry Cycle
  7. Jill Pole from the Chronicles of Narnia
  8. Laura Ingalls from By The Shores of Silver Lake or Little Town on the Prairie
  9. Miss Lavendar Lewis from Anne of Avonlea (she’s just such a lovely character and Echo Lodge is so delightful)
  10. Tiffany Aching from The Wee Free Men and A Hat Full of Sky

7.30.2012

Tomato Soup, I Love You

As was bound to happen when you go and plant thirty cherry and small fruit tomato plants, I have too many tomatoes. So many, that I've already given some away at work rather than see them go bad. Being selfish, I don't really want to keep doing that.

What to do? Make soup! I had bookmarked a lovely recipe from FamilyFun.go.com for "Roasted Tomato Soup" last winter when I was positively jonesing for soup every darn day. Obviously, cherry tomatoes weren't in season then but they certainly are now and the recipe is a great way to use up six cups of the precious darlings.

Roasted Cherry Tomato Soup
It glows with the glow of a thousand orange tomatoes ...

To healthify this soup, I omitted the butter and reduced the amount of cream by half. I also omitted the grilled cheese croutons and didn't miss them, because this soup is so veryvery delicious on its own. (I can usually take or leave tomato soup, but this stuff is addictive and I want to eat it constantly. Good thing the recipe makes a lot).

I used turkey broth, because I still have quite a lot leftover from last year's big buy, but chicken or vegetable broth would work just as well. I also used less broth than the original recipe called for, because I wanted a very thick soup.

Despite being pureed, this soup retains a lot of texture from the bazillion cherry tomato seeds. If you don't like seeds, I recommend straining the soup through a sieve before adding the cream. (I strained about two thirds of the soup, leaving a little bit of seeds and skin behind for body).
Creamy Roasted Cherry Tomato Soup
Adapted from FamilyFun.go.com

Ingredients
6 cups cherry tomatoes
3 Tbsp olive oil
1 tsp sea salt
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
5 springs fresh thyme
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 medium red onion, chopped
14 oz can Muir Glen fire-roasted diced tomatoes, undrained
14 oz can turkey broth
½ cup heavy cream

Directions
Heat oven to 400°F. Toss cherry tomatoes with 3 sprigs thyme, 2 Tbsp olive oil, salt and pepper, and spread evenly on a large jelly roll pan. Roast until tomatoes have shriveled and some have burst, about 40 minutes. Set aside.


Roasted Tomatoes

Heat remaining 1 Tbsp olive oil in a large soup pot. Add the garlic, onion and remaining sprigs of thyme and saute until onion is softened. Add the canned tomatoes with their juice, turkey broth, and roasted tomatoes with their juices and bits of thyme. Simmer, covered, for 40 minutes.

Remove from heat. Puree tomato mixture with an immersion blender or what have you. Strain out seeds, if desired. Stir in cream and season with additional salt and pepper to taste.

Serves 4 for lunch with leftovers.

Manga: Mail Order Ninja, Volume 1

Mail Order Ninja, Volume 1 written by Joshua Elder & illus. by Erich Owen (Tokyopop, 2006)

Mail. Order. Ninja. Sweet! I don't remember what I was searching for when I came across this title in my library consortium's catalog, but as soon as I saw it, I knew I had to read it. There was just something so preposterously charming about the idea of a mail order ninja (and who wouldn't want one?).

Basically, the story goes like this: bullied Timmy McAllister sees a notice in the back of a mail order catalog advertising the chance to win a real, live ninja. Of course, Timmy sends in his SASE and, two-to-three weeks later, there's a ninja in his living room.

Preposterous, I know. But the manga plays it completely straight, treating the arrival of the ninja as if it were no weirder than Timmy bringing home a stray dog -- right down to the talk about responsibility and desperate promises not to ask for anything ever again. It's really cutely done.

Unfortunately, the arrival of the ninja and sorting out of bullies only takes up the first half of this surprisingly thin manga (for all it has going on, it's as thin as as a volume of Chi's Sweet Home). The second half is given over to Timmy's ascension to power as he takes on the richest, most popular girl in the school to become class president. I found Timmy a little less likeable in that storyline -- a little too smug and too reliant on his ninja. But that's okay, because he's probably going to get taken down a notch in Volume 2 ... now that Little Miss Rich Girl has a ninja of her own.
What? You didn't see that coming?

I searched high and low for a video of "Ninja Fighting" (to the tune "Kung Fu Fighting") by Funk Up Your Head (feat. MC Nösblëd, Not Real Records), but couldn't find one (bad, fans, bad). So I give you this author interview, instead:



(The video shows color panels but the manga is actually black-and-white. It's too bad, because the colored panels look really good).

7.26.2012

Bunnicula Nostalgia

"Okay," he said, "this is it. I'm sorry I had to go this far, but if they'd listened, this wouldn't have been necessary." He dragged the steak across the floor and laid it across the inert bunny. Then with his paws, he began to hit the steak.
"Are you sure this what they mean, Chester?"
"Am I anywhere near his heart?" he asked.
"It's hard to tell," I said. "All I can really see are his nose and his ears. You know, he's really sort of cute."
Chester was getting that glint in his eyes again. He was pounding away at the steak, harder and harder.
I first encountered Howard, Chester, and the mysterious bun-bun in their midst at an elementary school book fair. Bunnicula's cover art immediately won me over and I remember rushing to the payment table to fork over my hard-won allowance as quickly as possible. Not for me the chose-your-own-adventure books are the smelly pens of multi-hued ink, no. I must have Bunnicula.

I gobbled Bunnicula down in one sitting and then reread it over and over again. At some point, I must have figured out there were more books about Bunnicula out there in the world, waiting for me to read, because I clearly remember relentlessly begging my mother for an advance on my allowance and a trip to Little Professor so I purchase Howliday Inn.

Oh, I loved these books! And even now, as I reread them, the stories still hang together well and remain as funny, clever, and smart as I remember. The deadpan narration of Harold the dog, the wild accusations of Chester the cat, the Monroe family's amusing interactions, and simple silent adorabs of Bunnicula -- all these things make for an excellent read.

And there are four more books after The Celery Stalks At Midnight! How did I not know this? I guess, by the time Nighty Nightmare came out, I was already in junior high and well into a hardcore Dark is Rising bender I would not surface from until high school. Vampire bunnies might have lost their charm?

Well, that doesn't stop me from catching up with Bunnicula now. My library consortium has all the Bunnicula books on audio and I look forward meeting Howie again and seeing what new mischief Chester will get us into.

7.23.2012

Still Complaining About Hard Times

Yes, I’m still slogging my way through Hard Times. I’ve actually read further than I’ve listened to so I’ve been giving my eyes a rest this week while my ears catch up ... and, either way, the novel is one frustrating chunk of literature. There’s simply no charm to it. And precious little humor to relieve the novel’s horrible, depressing grind. To be honest, I’m not even sure the absurd bits are supposed to be humorous.

Mrs. Sparsit whizzing down the banisters? Probably supposed to funny:

She was a most wonderful woman for prowling about the house. How she got from story to story was a mystery beyond solution. A lady so decorous in herself, and so highly connected, was not to be suspected of dropping over the banisters or sliding down them, yet her extraordinary facility of locomotion suggested the wild idea. Another noticeable circumstance in Mrs. Sparsit was, that she was never hurried. She would shoot with consummate velocity from the roof to the hall, yet would be in full possession of her breath and dignity on the moment of her arrival there. Neither was she ever seen by human vision to go at a great pace.

Mrs. Sparsit wittering on about how Bitzer the Pale doesn’t snore so much as choke? I have no idea. I think it’s supposed to be funny, but it just makes me want to howl with annoyance. Bitzer could not possibly sound like a Dutch clock. And why does Mrs Sparsit have to be so round-about in her answer? It's a nice display of self-aggrandizement on her part, I'd guess:

“Mrs. Sparsit, ma’am, you say you have heard him snore?”
“Sir,” returned Mrs. Sparsit, “I cannot say that I have heard him precisely snore, and therefore must not make that statement. But on winter evenings, when he has fallen asleep at the table, I have heard him, what I should prefer to describe as partially choke. I have heard him on such occasions produce sounds of a nature similar to what may be sometimes heard in Dutch clocks. Not,” said Mrs. Sparsit, with a lofty sense of giving strict evidence, “that I would convey any imputation on his moral character. Far from it. I have always considered Bitzer a young man of the most upright principle; and to that I beg to bear my testimony.”

A Dutch clock sounds like this, by the way:


So, maybe Mrs Sparsit remains annoying, but the scene is funny in its absurdity. However, Mrs. Sparsit sneaking through the woods as she spies on Louisa? There's nothing about it that isn't sinister or creepy. She willingly sheds all the vestiges of propriety and class to skulk about in the rain, delighting in Louisa’s Terrible Downfall. She seems the very caricature of a wicked witch by the end -- half mad with triumph, covered in cobwebs and caterpillars, with mud all over her skirts, and thoroughly soaked by the rain. It’s quite over the top, even for Hard Times -- a novel that likes to hit every point as hard and as unsubtly as possible.

If it sounds like I’m picking on Mrs. Sparsit, it’s because I am. Ridiculous and wicked as she is, Mrs. Sparsit is the most comic character in Hard Times! No doubt, some may find nervy Mrs. Gradgrind humorous as well, but she’s not in the novel nearly as much as Mrs. Sparsit and seems to me more meant to be her husband’s foil -- all fluttery nerves to his strict facts -- than a comic character there to soften the novel’s deadening grind.

You know what Hard Times really needs? Lolcats! Or a drinking game. Or both. For every Hard Times lolcat you don’t find on the Internetz, take a drink. As there are no Hard Times lols, you'll soon be as drunk as Mrs. Blackpool.

7.18.2012

Wordless Wednesday: Bonsai Forest

Bonsai
Squint a little and you're walking in the Old Forest?

7.15.2012

Eating The Alphabet: K is for Kiwi / L is for Lemon

I dithered over July's recipe possibilities for too long and, suddenly, it was last weekend and I still hadn't made anything. Flipping through my newest cookbook acquisition, Weight Watchers One-Pot Cookbook (Wiley, 2012), I stumbled across the recipe for "Lush No-bake Lemon Cheesecakes" and thought that, when tarted up with kiwi, raspberries, and fresh whipped cream, I might have a winner on my hands.

I already had kiwi, raspberries, lemon, and unflavored gelatin at home so it just meant a quick trip to the market for ricotta. I ended up buying part-skim ricotta, not fat-free, as the fat-free ricotta had (imho) too much stuff in it to keep it resembling cheese. The part-skim was just milk, vinegar, and salt. Also, if you're not keen on lemon, I don't see why you couldn't use lime or orange zest.

Was my trip to the market worth it? I'd say yes. Didn't that cheesecake turn out so pretty?

No-Bake Cheesecake & Fruit

These cheesecakes were a lot of fun to make and helped me get over my fear of double boilers. I'm always afraid I'll mess up with double boilers -- the bowl will be too close to the boiling water and get too hot or too far away and not get hot enough, etc -- and ruin whatever I'm trying to make. I promised myself I'd just relax and do as well as I could. If I ruined it, I'd just start over. The glass of wine I drank while re-reading the recipe probably helped, because I was very relaxed when the milk-zest mixture exploded all over the microwave.

When a recipe says "microwave on High until it boils, about 1½-2 minutes," you want to check at 1 minute. Don't whack it in for 2 and walk away. Clumps of zest and splashes of milk all over the inside of the microwave!

So I started over again and it all went smoothly. Things turned pale and thickened at precisely the right times. The ricotta mixtures beat smoothly into the thickened, cooled custard. The gelatin set up in the fridge. After four hours of refrigeration, I had achieved deliciousness.

Would I make these again? Oh, yes. They're smooth and creamy with a light, almost flirty, lemoniness. The chopped kiwi and raspberries paired well with the cheesecakes and fresh whipped cream never goes amiss! The Husband, who can be picky about lemon and "healthy" desserts, really liked these and seems to be of the opinion I should make them every weekend this summer.




Weight Watchers One-Pot Cookbook has a number of other interesting dessert recipes, including one for "Warm Cherries with Goat Cheese & Thyme" which uses a little dark brown sugar, balsamic vinegar, and fresh thyme to make a sauce for the fresh cherries! Maybe for next year's Alphabet Challenge?

7.13.2012

Manga: DramaCon, Volume 1 & 2

DramaCon, Volume 1 & 2 by Svetlana Chmakova (Tokypop, 2005 & 2006)

While Nightschool’s ending left me a little embittered toward the series, it did not leave me embittered toward the author. Quite the contrary -- Chmakova’s art and writing style charmed me and I was very happy to find her first series, Dramacon, was available through my library system.

Dramacon is a three volume series that starts with a young woman, Christie, attending her first anime convention with her boyfriend and a couple friends. Alas, Christie’s first con doesn’t go well -- the convention is a bit of a culture clash for her and her boyfriend, who should be smoothing the way and helping her adjust, is busy making sheeps’ eyes at all the sexy lady cosplayers. Then Christie meets an infuriating (but smokin’) cosplayer of her own, gets praised by her favorite manga writer, and things start to look up.

The second volume is set a year later at the same convention and so on with the third. I’ve only read the first two volumes, but ohhhh such fun! The series is very sparkly and cute with lots of spontaneous (and adorable) chibi-fication of overly excited characters. Seriously, I haven’t enjoyed a manga this much since I read Chi’s Sweet Home. Except for a scene or two, I've grinned my way through both volumes.

And lest you think Dramacon, with its star-crossed romance and general tweeness, is just for the ladies, I will have you know I have had to fight The Husband for possession of each volume. Indeed, the cad boldly stole Volume 3 from my library tote bag without so much as a distracting kiss. Just leaned it, plucked it out, and scarpered away with a laugh.

Dramacon, was nominated for an Eisner and a Harvey, appeared on the ALA's 2007 Great Graphic Novels for Teens (along with Sorcerers and Secretaries, which you should also read) so you don’t have to take my word for it -- experts agree Dramacon is worth reading.

7.10.2012

Mighty Long-Winded Post Signifying Nothing Much

I was going to write about The Duchess of Whimsy and how much fun I had reading it, but my mind keeps circling back to a conversation I had with a coworker. At lunch one day last week, I could not stop talking about The Duchess of Whimsy and Minette’s Feast (a really lovely story about Julia Child’s cat). I thought they were marvellous books. Very cleverly written with lots of detailed, whimsical illustrations -- the kind of illustrations I turn back to, again and again, sure I've missed some adorable detail.

I don’t know, maybe my fangirl carryings-on were de trop, because my coworker became a bit grumpy and went on a mini rant about being annoyed by all the “clever” and “sophisticated” picture books being published that aren’t really meant for children. Sure, the detailed illustrations and witty text appeal to me, but would a four-year-old appreciate it? A four-year-old does not have the attention span for such detail and wouldn't tolerate sophisticated language. Such picture books are better suited to older readers, but they wouldn't read them because they'd be looking in the chapter books.

To some extent, I agree with her. PreK/K me wouldn’t have known what a soirée or bistro was without explanation … which my mother, teacher, or librarian, when reading the story aloud, would have supplied. Aren't adults meant to read picture books to children? And isn't it good the books are so clever and detailed -- so the adults have as much fun reading the story as the children do hearing it? I know I would have loved the pictures in either book and I know my mom would have really enjoyed reading Minette's Feast to me.

Also, need picture books be “dumbed down” to whatever we think a child’s level is or ought to be? Shouldn’t we aspire to inspire children to push the limits of their understanding? (And, I somehow I just can’t see any author getting up in the morning and thinking “Alright! Today I’m going to write a story for 2-year-olds about a red balloon! With simple stick drawings and a beat-them-over-the-head-with-obviousness moral so the little buggers don’t get confused”).

A quick look at GoodReads tells me most readers agree with me that the The Duchess of Whimsy is beautiful and witty with no complaints about its level of sophistication:
"First of all, let me say that the illustrations are *perfect* and I wanted to peruse each page slowly and intently to catch every little detail!"

"The illustrations are wondrous, humorous and filled with details; the story is filled with the extravagance of a whimsical duchess. "

"Humorous, and full of an exuberant sense of fun."

“If your child liked Fancy Nancy or Eloise then they will love The Duchess of Whimsy by Randall de Séve.”

“This is a simply delicious book, and a perfect readaloud for story time.”

“A beautiful book filled with such tremendous words. This would make a nice choice for an Early Literacy storytime on Vocabulary.”

“Wondeful kids story, amusing and not preachy, and a great vocabulary builder.”

“This would make a really fun read aloud! I also think this would be a good character and vocabulary process study.”
And all this is just my very roundabout way of me saying: To heck with my coworker, The Duchess of Whimsy (and Minette’s Feast) is a great picture book and everyone should read it.

7.07.2012

Crazy Cooking Challenge: Fried Chicken

PhotobucketThere were so many fried chicken recipes I meant to try out for July’s Crazy Cooking Challenge, but so few I actually got around to trying. It’s been so darn hot and sticky that the mere thought of running my oven filled me with horror. So I kept pushing the CCC off to “tomorrow” and then it was tomorrow and still so darn hot. And then it was July! Oh, no!

(Come September, and cool weather, I assure you I will post a veritable hen house worth of oven-fried chicken recipes).

Surely I could find a nice, simple work night oven-fried chicken recipe? I tried two recipes before I found Grain Free Oven “Fried” Chicken at JoAnn’s Gluten Free Recipe Archive and knew I had struck CCC gold. Perfectly seasoned, with a crispy-crunchy outside and a moist tender inside? Yum.

Oven-Fried Chicken Breasts

Grain Free Oven "Fried" Chicken from the Gluten Free Recipe Archive (reproduced with permission)

Ingredients:
2 C almond flour (I used Bob's Red Mill because it's a bit chunky - good texture for breading)
1 C Parmesan Cheese, grated
2-3 tsp Old Bay Seasoning (to taste) [I used 3 tsp Penzeys Chesapeake Bay]
1 T garlic powder
2 tsp Herbes de Provence (or Italian Herb Mix) [I used Penzeys salt-free Herbes de Provence]
4 eggs
3 - 3½ lbs boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2 T each butter and olive oil for pan

Directions:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Put butter and olive oil in baking pan (should be large enough to accommodate all of the chicken in a single layer, leaving a bit of space between pieces if possible), and place the pan on a rack in the center of the oven. You want the pan and oil-butter mixture to be hot when the chicken goes in.


Butter & Oil
Butter + oil = delicious
Mix all dry ingredients in a pie pan; beat the eggs in a separate pie pan. Immerse each chicken breast in the beaten eggs, coating well. Next, dredge the chicken in the almond flour mixture, pressing it in with your fingers....make sure each piece is well covered. Remove the hot baking pan from the oven and place the chicken pieces in the olive oil-butter mixture. Try to separate the chicken pieces from each other in the pan if possible.

Bread Coating & Egg DipEgg DipBreading ChickenGoing In the Oven

Bake for about 20 minutes, then turn the chicken and bake for another 20 - 25 minutes depending on the size and thickness of your chicken breasts.
You're thinking "Old Bay and Herbes de Provence? Surely, those flavors do not go together?" Oh, but they do and they make for some ridiculously delicious chicken! Way better combination than whatever the Colonel uses.

(I'd worried the chicken might be dry since I was using boneless skinless chicken breasts and wondered if I should have soaked them overnight in buttermilk. But, no, the chicken was perfectly moist and tender without the buttermilk bath!)

Even though I don't cook gluten-free, I look forward to making many other recipes from JoAnn's Gluten Free Recipe Archive, because I like good food and she has it in spades. Thanks, JoAnn!

Hard Times, You're Bringing Me Down

There came a point today when I just had to put Hard Times aside or I was in great danger of chucking it across the room.

Oh, these men. These awful, ignorant men. Full of money and facts. Always busy with the calculations relative to number one. Completely lacking in humanity. Without lovingkindness, gentleness, or humility.

Louisa's going to marry Mr. Bounderby, that pompous ghoul, and it will kill her. I mean, I presume that's what the "embers falling into ash" scenes are meant to foreshadow. Maybe she won't actually die a physical death, but I don't see how any young woman's soul wouldn't be crushed by marriage to Bounderby (and constant scrutiny by a spiteful Mrs. Sparsit).

Oh! And Old Stephen Blackpool! His wife is a monstrous millstone around his neck. She'll never die, you know. She, in her wretchedness, will haunt him all his days. She'll probably even outlive him and finish the novel drunk at his graveside. Why couldn't his wife just drink up her cup of poison and die, leaving Stephen to marry Rachael and achieve some modicum of happiness?

Is there going to be any happiness in this book? Happiness that isn't just for those awful, factual men? I really want Louisa and Jupe to run off to America and set up house together, but this is not that kind of book, so I'll settle for Old Stephen and Rachel doing that, but I'm sure that won't happen, either. No, it's going to be misery and degradation right up to the end, isn't it?

I feel like a need a stiff drink and a marathon showing of North & South before I'll be able to pick up Hard Times again.

7.05.2012

Wherein I Witter On About Narnia

A few years ago, The Husband gave me a beautifully boxed set of The Chronicles of Narnia on CD. A HarperCollins publication, it consists of a laminated box with slipcase and seven CD books nestled in their own individual slipcases. Everything, including the CDs themselves, are decorated with colored illustrations from the novels and are just a real pleasure to both look at and to handle. I must admit, though, that until recently I'd only listened to my favorite books in the series and ignored the rest.

However, our long drive to Niagara Falls last month required a significant amount of audio material to comfort and entertain us while we crossed the wilds of New York into fell Canada. The Chronicles seemed perfect for the trip -- familiar, but not too, and long enough that we go get through one book each way. Also, one of us had forgot to stock up on audiobooks at the library so it's not as if we were spoilt for choice.

Since we came back from Niagara Falls, we've been keeping up with the Narnian adventures of those Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve. Currently, we're on the first disc of The Silver Chair (excellently read by Jeremy Northam) -- Eustace has muffed the first sign, everyone's had a lovely supper, and now we're off to the Parliament of Owls. I can't wait to reacquaint myself with Puddleglum the Marsh-wiggle! With his gloomy optimism and dogged courage in the face of certain doom, he remains one of my favorite characters.

The Silver Chair is, as far as I'm concerned, Book 4 of The Chronicles. I know most Narnia lovers have strong opinions regarding The Chronicles reading order. Read them in the order they were published or read them in the order of events? I go with publication order, because I think the stories make better sense that way. Also, if read in the order of publication with The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe first, Narnia is slowly built up in my mind with great mystery and marvel. Yes, even though I've read The Chronicles many many times since childhood.

(I say that, as there is no wrong way to read a book, there is also no wrong order to read them in. Stick yourself in wherever the tale seems most interesting and go on from there. If that means starting with The Last Battle ... well, why not?)

I was a little worried, when we starting listening to The Chronicles, that The Husband wouldn't really enjoy them. He'd read The Magician's Nephew on his own (believing it the first one, poor lamb) and thought it was all right, but expresses a little crankiness toward The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe because, way back in junior school, it was one of those books the teachers read to the students. Unfortunately, no teacher ever progressed further than the first third of the book and I can certainly see how that would be annoying -- the Pevensies and Turkish Delight over and over again without ever getting to Christmas, or the Stone Table, or the destruction of the White Witch's army. Seems like a torture worthy of the White Witch, really, with her "always winter, but never Christmas."

(This is a bit sad, but whenever The Husband talks about his early education I imagine him at Pole and Scrubb's 'orrible Experiment House).

7.04.2012

Wordless Wednesday: SkyWheel by Night

Ferris Wheel by Night

Niagara SkyWheel at night. Why do Ferris wheels always make me want to break out into "Ezekiel Saw the Wheel?"